Spend enough time around horses and you’ll start to get to know their behavior and mannerisms as well as you know the facial expressions of the people close to you. Here are four common things you’ll see in horse behavior, and what each one means.
You’ve probably seen pictures of horses with their faces tipped upward, their lips curled back, and their teeth bared. No, they are not grinning or laughing, even though such pictures are often shared as such or become memes online. This is called the flehmen response, and just means your horse smelled something interesting and is analyzing the smell. Tipping his head back and curling his lip upward, breathing in, and blowing out all help to feed the scent through the vomeronasal organ, a part of his nose that helps him to smell better.
Sometimes when you’re working with your horse, you’ll see him make a chewing motion with his mouth after a big moment. Maybe he got in trouble for something, or maybe he did what you want and you praised him for it. It’s usually in a quiet moment, coinciding with a release of pressure. That little chew is your horse’s way of saying that he’s thinking about what you just told him, and with any luck, learning from it for the future.
Often when people ride, you’ll see their horses gently swish their tail with the motion of their gait. But occasionally you’ll see a horse that is actually wringing his tail, sometimes in a rapid side-to-side motion, and other times up and down very quickly. This typically indicates that the horse is irritated or upset about something that is happening. If you see this in the pasture, perhaps in an interaction between two pasturemates, watch out, as it could mean the horse is about to bite, strike, or kick.
It’s perfectly normal for horses to be excited at feeding time, but if your horse seems to get anxious, upset, or aggressive, take note, as it could mean that something is physically wrong. Horses with ulcers can experience pain at feeding time because anticipation activates the stomach acids and irritates the ulcers. Behaviors to watch out for include pinning ears, grinding teeth, kicking the stall wall repeatedly, and other signs of agitation.
Deciphering what your horse is trying to say can be a full-time job, which is of course why we hire trainers to help us communicate what we want our horses to do. Knowing what horse behavior means can sometimes help you to better provide for your horse, such as getting vet care if your horse is displaying signs of having an ulcer, but almost every horse owner has said on occasion, “I wish they could tell us what’s wrong!”
Fortunately, for some things you don’t have to have a horse behavior translator to meet your horse’s needs. For instance, providing a complete feed allows you to rest easy knowing that all of his nutritional needs are taken care of. For more information about how a pelleted feed meets your horse’s dietary needs, contact Sacate Pellet Mills at 602-237-3809.